In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, “How India Became America,” Akash Kapur writes that the entry of coffeehouse giant Starbucks, into the Indian market, “signals the latest episode in India’s remarkable process of Americanization.” But, does the term “Americanization” accurately capture the flavor of the changes sweeping India?
Yes, Starbucks was born in charmingly wet Seattle, and if corporations had nationalities, Starbucks would have carried a passport bearing the seal of the coat of arms of the United States, embossed on a midnight-blue cover. Yet, ironically, Starbucks is one among a handful of quintessentially American consumer brands that are, in essence, shedding their American identity, and projecting themselves more as suave, cosmopolitan, globalist players.
Starbucks did not fly to India as “Starbucks Coffee.” Around early 2011, the company dropped the words, “Starbucks” and “Coffee,” from its logo. By jettisoning the verbiage, it was, on one level, making it known for more than just coffee; on another, it was trying, it could be argued, to dispense with a direct connection to an American literary classic.
Starbucks is named after the first mate character in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The logo, also inspired by the sea, features a “twin-tailed siren,” from Greek mythology. When Starbucks was founded in 1971, the sea-nymph was selected as a salute to the nautical roots of the coffee business.
In the new version of the logo, the mermaid floats freely—unbound by a name. To surrender one’s name is to be willing to travel beyond the rigid shackles imposed by it, and to eagerly adapt and adjust to the fads and fancies; the tastes and quirks, of other cultures.
Consider the coffee shop located at the entrance to the Dazaifu Tenmangu, an ancient Japanese shrine, dating back to 919 A.D. It is a Starbucks. Made out of 2,000 short and slender wooden poles, woven diagonally, its architecture, however, is decidedly un-Starbucks. The goal of the Japanese architecture firm, in the words of Italian design magazine, Domus, was to erect a building that would “harmonize with the [surrounding] townscape” of low-slung houses.
Very recently, Starbucks unveiled a new concept store in Amsterdam, which is not clinically glossy. Redolent with the aroma of roasted beans, with walls adorned with antique Delft tiles, with long oak tables and benches, made of repurposed Dutch oak, it has the cozy fug of a gingerbread house.
Starbucks, and others of its corporate ilk, could not care less if they set up shop in the Nubian mountains in the Sudan (provided of course, there was no war raging).
There was a time, not too long ago, when France disparaged hamburgers and French fries. The homeland of haute-cuisine, a nation of epicures, renowned for its three-star Michelin restaurants, declared McDonald’s as the epitome of what it called “malbouffe” (translated as “junk food”). Today, McDonald’s has won over the palates of the Gauls. The fast-food hegemony has converted France into its second-most profitable market in the world, with over 1,200 restaurants.
How did that happen? Again, the answer is that McDo, as the chain is known in France, has de-Americanized itself.
Unlike in the United States, you will not see pole-mounted Golden Arches, visible from far afield, and they are not set against a Red Riding Hood-red background, but foliage green. The visual signage is more subdued. In a stark departure from its American counterpart, inside, the restaurants, are well, more restaurant-like, with elegant décor, which entice customers to spend more time within the establishment, rather than grab a paper bag and go. On its menu are French dainties like French Roquefort cheese sandwiches and Parisian macaroons.
Can Starbucks and McDonald’s still be considered “American” companies? More importantly, do they care what we think of them, whether as a cowboy or an absinthe-drinking portraitist?
Alakananda Mookerjee lives in Brooklyn, and is a Francophile.
Sharmila Mukherjee teaches writing at New York University and at the City University of New York, and is an emergent fiction writer as well.